January 13, 2018
An Elder Wants to Know More
The Holy Spirit works in the lives of those who are open to renewed life. Evangelical Christians focus on a specific, one-time experience of being “born again.” Presbyterians focus on life-long spiritual transformation. We are rooted in the historical Christian Reformed tradition: We embrace the spiritual perspective of “Reformed and always reforming.” Getting in closer harmony with the Holy Spirit is a wonderful, yet mind-boggling adventure.
What do you do when something is hard to understand? Ben Hallbenhall’s comic strip depicts a devil in disguise who says to a fellow: “I’m starting an interdisciplinary task force to study our decision making process.” The perceptive man clarifies: “So you’re using a bad decision making process to decide how to fix our bad decision making process?” The devil feigns innocence saying, “I don’t know how else we could find the source of our problem.” The man scratches his head and suggests: “X-ray our skulls?”
In contrast to typical problem solving techniques used in America, the Spirit led me to story of Nicodemus, about new life led by the Holy Spirit.
The Middle East of Jesus’ time was a mess. The Roman Empire had conquered Jerusalem and had set up Roman governors like Pilate. The Romans allowed local kings to keep their thrones and enough power to abuse their own people. Religious leaders were bogged down in bureaucracy and dulled compliance with tradition. Pharisees and Sadducees competed for power like Democrats and Republicans.
Common people suffered from over-taxation so that the rich could get richer. People still held some hope that God’s Messiah would rescue them. But many messianic pretenders disappointed their expectations.
Jesus was dramatically challenging religious and social practices. Unlike false messiahs who grasped at power for themselves, Jesus modeled self-giving and advocated love based on God’s love. Religious leaders resisted the new messages from Jesus. As his popularity grew, most leaders grew fearful of his power. They dug in their feet, complained about the new proposals of Jesus and devised strategies to preserve the way they had always done things. That is oh, so human—as you and I have enough experience to have learned many times.
This week, I had to re-learn this lesson the hard way. I am a co-trustee for funds that my children inherited from their great grandfather. The other trustee retired and the new co-trustee recommends major changes in the trust management. I grew fearful of the changes, dug in my feet, and devised lame alternatives to preserve the way the funds had been managed for years. Worst of all, I complained about the new proposals. My complaining intensified my anxiety and made the new trustee frustrated and resentful. My objections disheartened both of us. My resistance caused frustration, wasted time, pointless effort and money lost. I finally realized and accepted that the new trustee is making wise recommendations. I discovered anew that I am all too similar to the Pharisees who were closed to new perspectives.
Most Jerusalem elite who knew of Jesus deprecated him as a longhaired hippie peace-nick rabble-rouser. They wanted to hold on to their own power. Yet the common people were drawn to Jesus, probably more compellingly than later generations inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. or Desmond Tutu.
John tells us that the Pharisee, Nicodemus visited Jesus under the cover of darkness. We can surmise that Nicodemus did not want to be discovered fraternizing with him, given that those wielding power repudiated Jesus. Ironically, the darkness gives way to potential enlightenment. This respected Elder wants to know if Jesus is the real deal. Like many stories in the Gospels, John’s story does not record the Nicodemus’ immediate response to Jesus. The Gospel does record, however, that Nicodemus later challenged other Pharisees about Jesus. (John 7.50) And, after Jesus was killed, Nicodemus took substantial risk to bury this controversial emissary of God. (John 19.39)
John is the only Gospel writer who tells the story of Jesus and Nicodemus. We do not know if Nicodemus was a historical person or a literary archetype for spiritual inquiry. We do not know if Nicodemus was prejudiced against Jesus and wanted to discredit him; or if he was inclined to believe that Jesus offered incredible new spiritual insight. Either way, Nicodemus was pro-active. This respected Elder wants to know more about Jesus. Nicodemus reminds me of a man I talked with this week who is eager to explore spiritual matters. This Newburgher? Newburghian? man told me, “There are lots of things I’d like to understand better.” He is humble and insightful enough to actively SEEK opportunities to deepen his spiritual understandings.
Jesus welcomed Nicodemus despite the possibility that Nicodemus had come to apprehend him. Both recognized that they only had a brief time for interchange, so Jesus foregoes traditional hospitality.
Jesus harshly criticized Nicodemus and us along with him. In effect, Jesus challenged: How can you be an ambassador of God’s vision since you do not really understand spiritual wisdom?
The Gospel leaves it to those who hear the story to decide how we will respond to the challenge Jesus put forth:Are we open to being born again, born anew, and born from above?
Jesus warned this esteemed elder that tradition alone would not yield fully renewed life. Transformation requires a new way of life. The Gospel describes this re-birth with the Greek word ANOTHEN. “Anothen” can mean born again, born anew or born from above. Jesus unequivocally declares: “You must be born ANOTHEN – You must be born again / born anew / born from above.” You must be born of the spirit. Like the wind, the spirit can never be captured fully. The spirit continually touches us with inspiration, yet the Spirit persistently eludes our firm grasp.
One comic suggests that cats are savvier than humans: The cat tells the minister: I want to be born again, and again and again and again…well you get the idea. New life is worth seeking! Amen!